Hi Mom. For Easter I went to a Buddhist temple with a dash of Hindu. Our youngest intuitively fell to her knees as we lit incense offered in ancestor worship then our eldest asked what the hell happened to the 10 commandments as she noted the onlooking golden idols. There goes Christian mother of the year. Craicy.
The Easter bunny came in the night using 3 hotel towels twisted then shaped into circular vessels and filled with local candy. Acknowledgment of our Christian holiday was brief as we had to pack, eat and check out in record speed to meet our driver on time. We were slated to tour 2 last temples then catch a flight to Thailand all before noon. The temples are the main draw here even though they are partly, and at times largely, in ruins. For me this seems to add to their splendor. Just like crumbled host the rubble is collected and piled into careful little stacks putting onlookers on notice that even the smallest most random stones are precious and still charged with the sacred.
The Siem Reap vicinity was once the capital of Cambodia and abandoned for Phnom Phen only when it was determined that a capital farther from the border would be more insulated against attack. Cambodians say this is the reason the temples were allowed to be hidden by cover of the encroaching jungle and kept so for many years as protection. Did their plan work? Would they have been destroyed all together if not under nature's cover? Perhaps questions like this help contribute to the air of mystique that oozes from them. They careen you to a place where tigers stalk and monkeys hold court, carvings have secret meaning and perhaps even line up with the sun or moon, which send rays that unlock secret passage. The sculptures decapitated by tomb raiders surely must animate at night.
The first temple we visited here was mac daddy Angkor Wat. It is the temple on the Cambodian flag and said to be the largest temple in the world. As we crossed its moat and readied to pass into its first gallery I noticed a blackened chicken staked nearby in standing position with wings spread wide. I pointed to it and the guide replied, animism. A real live animal sacrifice in our midst and that's all the detail I get? I pressed for more and asked for a blow-by-blow of the likely scenario that resulted in that chicken being staked and planted there. He explained that a very possible scenario could be a child has become sick (I knew it- Dengue!) and the parents instead of (or hopefully in addition to) going to a doctor consult a practitioner skilled in dealing with the spirit world. This could be a kru (shaman or spirit practitioner) or a rup arak (medium, usually male). The kru prepares charms and amulets to protect the wearer from harm and can cure illnesses, find lost objects, and prepare magic potions. Some kru are pretty famous locally; many are former Buddhist monks. Rup arak are mediums who can be possessed by supernatural beings and communicate with the spirit world. Think Whoopi Goldberg with Patrick Swayze jumping into her in the movie Ghost. Whichever skill set they sought, the spiritual practitioner could have very likely told the parents that one of their ancestors is hungry for a chicken. Because they cannot speak anymore they cause disruption like the child's illness to get the audience they need to ask for things. The spiritual guru then tells the parents to present a chicken to the ancestor and all will be ok. I suppose the moral of this hypothetical story is wipe your parents' butts well in this life, for they can impose a whole lotta chicken eatin upon you in the next.
In all seriousness, animism is strongly represented across the world. It is the cornerstone of Japanese Shintoism. Native Americans are surely animists. It summons tribal sacrifices and abhorrent behavior, but for the most part, it is not quite so strange. The very word animism is misleading. It is simply an anthropologist's decided name for the belief system that holds there is no separation between the spiritual and physical world, and souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in all other animals, plants, rocks, mountains, thunder, wind, and the like. Those of you who have ever felt your loved ones soaring above you as a great bird in flight- you are behaving animistic (not to be confused with animalistic). One of my very personal favorite displays of animism that I intend to bring to the west is the very commonly seen gorgeous old tree adorned with ribbon. Some trees we have seen on our travels have a multitude of multi colored tulle ribbons tied around their trunks. This is widely seen in Japan, Cambodia and Thailand and is out of respect for the spirit in a tree of such magnificence. I know several trees in England that deserve such adornment.
Out in the Cambodian countryside I think beliefs venture beyond animism and can tread on a couple of shades of spooky. There are some with quite a strong belief in the supernatural world- reminiscent of LOOsianna Cajuns with their zombies and witch doctors. I'm gonna stick a pin in you Hun Sen. This all kinds of weirdness does not repel me, rather makes me sparkle. I had a good dose of ghost story given me by my Grandmother plus I was the B-rated late night movie queen. Me, my brother and our dog- one of the latter 2 constantly laying SBDs- enjoyed a ton of old fashioned spookiness.
Cambodian supernatural entities behave in the same vein as most international doppelgangers. These entitities include ghosts, spirits of people who have died violently, evil spirits (usually female of course), spirits residing in inanimate objects, guardians of a house, ancestral spirits, and elf like guardians of animals. They make themselves known by way of inexplicable sounds or events and must be shown proper respect or else they can cause trouble spanning from mischief to serious life-threatening illnesses. An important way for living people to show respect for the spirits of the dead is to provide food. Enter, the chicken. I think they actually like scooby snacks best.
Belief systems have gone in and out of vogue over the centuries in Cambodia with Hinduism, Buddhism and animism all seeming to be forces in yet another type of human milkshake. The resulting blend at the time of temple construction meant that many Khmer temples were built not as meeting places for the faithful but rather a palace for a god or gods to hang out. In reward these gods would then bestow goodness on their builder and the builder's peeps. These homes of the gods were almost all built of sandstone and adorned with intricate bas reliefs. These reliefs relay important historical information about life and myth. One famous story depicted on the wall of Angkor Wat is that of Hindu origin. It is a theme repeated throughout Khmer works and that is the Sea of Milk, also called the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. In this myth devas (gods) and asuras (demons) work together to stir up the Ocean of Milk in an attempt to free the precious objects lost within- especially the elixir of immortality called amrita. Vishnu is the Hindu god responsible calling forth these devas and asuras and he hands to them a serpent called Vasuki. Vasuki is fully laid out in a straight line except his middle is wrapped once around a mountain called Mount Mandara. Vishnu has the devas and asuras locked in tug of war pulling my boy Vasuki from both his head and tail with the mountain twisting in the middle. This action mountain rotating action churns the surrounding sea like a gigantic food processor. Thirteen precious things in all were lost with the amrita and this churning of the cosmic sea is in hopes to find them. The joint milkshake operation lasts for a thousand years. Oh yeah, there is a 21-headed demon king named Ravana and a monkey-god named Hanuman in the action too. If you are like me, at this point the quantity of characters and entities has grown too overwhelming so feel free to glaze over. Mount Mandara starts to sink and has to be propped up by Vishnu who has incarnated as a giant tortoise. The churning then releases seminal fluid WHAT that creates divine ambrosia WHAT WHAT, amrita, the essence of life and immortality….treasures start to spew out along with apsaras aka temple dancers. Is it just me or does this tale sound like a nocturnal emission?
I am so sorry my friends, the Hindu faithful. Please forgive my irreverence. I have always had the need to be the class clown- my issue, not yours. I do respect your belief and actually give it props for aligning more closely than any other creation belief with that of the scientific hypothesis that the origin of life was from the sea. Now please nobody get your knickers in a twist. There is enough room on the walls of the holy places in this world for every belief system to bas relief their own version of creation. We just need to respect each other's truths and not demand our way is the only way. After all, we are all different colors and shapes because we clearly originated from different creation myths, right?
Besides the Hindu story of creation, some anthropologists claim that this piece of Angkor Wat wall art serves the very cool function of marking the number of days between the winter and summer solstices. The 91 asuras (demons) mark the 91 days between the winter solstice and spring equinox in March, while the 88 devas (gods) represent the 88 days to the summer solstice after the equinox period. In addition to the intense wall stories (the human milkshake is just one of many) Angkor Wat has some famous other defining features. There are five pineconely towers and numerous pyramids that call forth a likeness to the Mayans. The pyramid in the center of the complex is the highest and its super steep steps control access to the most sacred space in the temple. Kids under 12 are not allowed to do climb it because it is so very steep. This center pyramid symbolizes the center of the Hindu universe- Mount Meru (not to be confused with Mount Mandara from the milk shake). The pinecone tower structures represent mountain peaks. There is a massive moat that surrounds the place symbolizing the mythical oceans that surround the universe. Angkor Wat is extremely unique in that its orientation is west instead of east. No one knows why but a good guess is that it was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, whom is associated with west.
The Angkor Empire was not only the site of temples; it was a great and populace city of the Khmers. There were many temples constructed within the estimated borders of this ancient city area but in my opinion none as great as the one in the center of Angkor Thom called the temple of Bayon. It is SO freaking cool. Suryavaram II built Angkor Wat but Jayavarman VII- a Buddhist- constructed this Angkor Thom. It has 54 towers and each has 2 to 4 faces on them looking all compass directions for a total of around 216 faces.
Upon approach, the towers just look pineconish like Angkor Wat but as you near the smiling faces appear. In addition to these faces, this temple also has very cool bas-reliefs involving more than 11,000 figures. Most of these works of art depict stories and scenes from every day life in ancient Cambodia. Our guide points out some scenes in the wall art showing love, loss, torture and 12th century life logistics. You walk past the reliefs and wander in the labyrinth and the faces accompany you from very dimension. They are thought be modeled from a sprinkle of Jayavarman with a dash of the bodhisattva of compassion Lokesvara. In the Buddhist tradition a bodhisattva is someone who motivated by great compassion works for the good of all beings. The facial expression is so unique and really seems to relay compassion- it elicits not one goosebump, just all kinds of warmth. For photography enthusiasts, this place is depth of field nirvana. The multidirectional faces framed by so many stone ruins create a myriad of opportunity for creativity. I can't wait to sift through my pictures.
Return to Easter Sunday and we are on our way to Ta Prohm- the Tomb Raider temple. Let me just say I can totally understand how Angelina Jolie fell in love with Cambodia and chose to select it as the place to adopt her first child, Maddox. The woman is genius in understanding how her celebrity can positively impact a place and being willing to do so. Sorry Jen, I choose twisted intelligence over iconic hair dews every time. Ta Prohm is partly collapsed and towering Silk Cotton and Strangler Fig Trees have mutated into the stone. It was built to transfer merit to the current king at the time- Jayavarman VII's mother. The few statues that are here are carved in her likeness. Monkeys, wild dogs and bold chickens greet us on our way in to this temple. They mill about the little dens made by the arms of the massive root structures. There are massive bees nests high above us in the towering branches. The temple is currently under reconstruction with the aid of India and some of the trees are going to be cut down as they threaten further destruction to the temple if hit by lightening or a wind storm. This work must involve some delicate decision making for the trees have not only made this temple famous now but I wonder how much the subject of animist controversy. It would be so interesting to hear the point-counterpoint discussion on this one.
Our last temple was Preah Khan. Upon our approach to it our thoughts shifted back to Easter as many opportunities to tithe present here. There are limbless musicians- likely victims of landmines- and a number of little kids asking for money. I travel back in time to the questions of Sydney with the homeless and weeks of pondering what is the right thing to do. Some say contributing to begging reinforces this as viable work and there is an opportunity cost of not staying in school or doing other tasks that have more promise in the long term. But long term is for those of us who use soap, seatbelts, and don't drink out of hot off gassing water bottles. Short term is for those who still spend their energy ensuring life-supporting tasks are met to even create the promise of a long term in their future. Besides, every one of them has a song or piece of candy to offer in exhange for some cash. The whole consideration took under 2 seconds. Here is our Easter Sunday celebration. We take all of our cash and give it to our kids to give away with loving good intentions in their hearts and ask them to try to not speak of it or draw attention to their good deed. That part is tough. Some things give you such joy you just want to share it with others. So Mom, we had Easter Sunday after all.